In prison, nothing draws a crowd like anger. Except, perhaps, the desire to control that anger.In Lawtey, the first U.S. faith-and character-based institution (FCBI), the Reverend Stephen J. McCoy teaches a class in anger management. Inmates learn about their "hidden child" and "scriptural responses to different situations."
Other Florida prisons provide state-funded classes that teach basic education and re-entry skills. At the FCBIs, volunteers pay for and teach classes in faith and character, from scriptural studies to self-control, and from parenting skills to worship services.
Lawtey requires inmates to choose at least one class a week, and the inmates have free choice from more than a dozen. McCoy's anger management class draws an amazing 230 inmates.
"Notice that it's not anger elimination," McCoy says. "It's anger management. Anger is one of the most powerful emotions. It can be constructive or destructive, depending on whether you manage it or not."
Teaching the constructive use of anger may take every day of McCoy's 20-week class. At the end of the fourth class, he asks the men for a show of hands.
"How many of you have someone you plan to get even with when you're released?"
Every time he teaches the class, 40 to 50 percent of the hands go up.
The Lord's helpers
McCoy's volunteer work with prisons began three years earlier with a surprise phone call from an old friend. The surprise came when McCoy discovered that the friend was now an inmate of the Florida prison system. That friend's request for help led to the volunteer prison program of McCoy's congregation, the Beaches Chapel Church of Jacksonville, Florida.
The church provides up to 40 out of Lawtey’s estimated 400 volunteers a month. McCoy matches his parishioners' skills with the inmates' needs. Businessmen lead classes in financial management, while teachers teach the ministry's literacy program.
Although some of their classes have secular subject matter, all have a spiritual basis, McCoy says. One example is the class "Laughter from Purity," which teaches inmates to resist homosexuality through Jesus Christ. A man and a woman who have “broken free from the bondage of homosexuality” head the Beaches Chapel Church ministry. According to the ministry's Web site, God loves homosexuals, but the homosexual must be set free from a "bondage of lies and deception that come from being wounded and sexually broken."
As long as the inmates have free choice in their classes, no group is required to provide secular alternatives, McCoy says.
A variety of faiths?
Volunteers outnumber Lawtey staff by nearly 2 to 1, and faiths represented include Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Rastafarianism and Wicca. However, according to prison chaplain William Wright, 90 percent of these volunteers are Christian. Most are white, male southern evangelicals and Baptists.
Rabbi Menachim Katz of the Aleph Institute, which provides goods and services to Florida's Jewish inmates, knows of only one practicing Jewish prisoner in Lawtey CI. Islamic prisoners in the FCBIs seem to have no regularly visiting imams, nor sources of religious material and instruction. Abbot KC Walpole of the Gateless Gate Zen Center is the only regular Buddhist volunteer visiting prisons in north-central Florida.
The limited number of non-Christian volunteers sometimes leads to misunderstanding and lack of accommodation.
"Buddhism is one step above devil worship in the eyes of the Christians," Walpole says. After one prison visit, Walpole realized that he'd left a book behind and went back to retrieve it.
"The chaplain was sprinkling holy water over the space we had met!" Walpole laughs.
Still, he appreciates the Christian drive.
"They're doing the job no one else is doing," Walpole says of the evangelicals. "They've got the courage of their convictions and don't spend their time preaching to the choir."
Inmates and the volunteers
Inmates mix compliments and condemnation when speaking about the FCBI programs, but they praise the volunteers and classes.
A former Hillsborough inmate, Tiffany Gaines, writes, “I had one [a mentor] for over a year and she helped me a lot with my things that I was dealing with. They help us do our time in a positive attitude.
“Mine was a pastor and even though I'm not there she still corresponds with me."
Ricky Lawson, a Wakulla inmate, writes "I am certainly not the best experience letter writing individual as you would expected," asking for patience concerning his grammar.
Then he demonstrates his own patience. With his letter, Lawson proudly includes his certificate of completion for a 20-hour computer literacy program, issued by the volunteer group Horizon Communities.For inmates who want to better themselves, writes Lawson, the FCBIs are a "golden opportunity."
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Do they work?
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The past and the future
From the violent and corrupt history of Florida prisons to the birth and shaky future of Florida's faith-based rehabilitation.
"SURVIVE THE DAY"> The game
ANIMATED GRAPHICS > The data